SF/SDLP bid to unseat McCausland in Casement inquiry fails

Nelson McCausland will remain as chairman of the Stormont committee investigating the redevelopment of Casement Park
Nelson McCausland will remain as chairman of the Stormont committee investigating the redevelopment of Casement Park

Sinn Fein and the SDLP have failed in a bid to force former sports minister Nelson McCausland to step aside as chairman of an inquiry into safety standards at Casement Park.

Another motion supported by the two parties for Mr McCausland to appear as a witness to the ongoing probe was also voted down by DUP, UUP and NI21 members.

The DUP MLA’s role as chairman of the Culture, Arts and Leisure (CAL) committee’s examination of emergency exit provision in the ill-fated stadium plan has already been the focus of criticism, given his former role as sports minister and previous press comments he made about the safety controversy.

The GAA’s efforts to develop the old stadium site in west Belfast have been mired in controversy, with initial planning approval for a 38,000-capacity venue quashed by the High Court last December following a challenge by nearby residents.

The Assembly inquiry was triggered a number of months later after an expert told the CAL committee he feared inadequate provision of exits in the original plans could have triggered a crush in the event of an emergency evacuation.

The current sports minister, Sinn Fein’s Caral Ni Chuilin, and the GAA have both insisted they acted correctly throughout the design process.

In its latest evidence session, the committee heard from former Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) deputy secretary Edgar Jardine.

Mr Jardine said his time in office ended in May 2011 and his role was confined to the stadium’s outline business case.

He told members that details such as emergency exit provision were not focused on at that stage of the process.

“Essentially issues around emergency exiting and exiting in general only become an issue when you get into the detail of the design,” he said.

“The outline business case would have had broad conceptual drawings at that stage, but there wouldn’t have been the level of details which would have been required to have judgments about emergency exits.”

Mr McCausland’s time as sports minister also ended in 2011.

After Mr Jardine’s appearance members disagreed on whether his evidence provided grounds for calling Mr McCausland as a witness on the safety issue.

Sinn Fein’s Cathal O hOisin, referring to the DUP man’s creationist views, said: “I know you are not a Darwinist but I think you are the missing link on this one.”

His party colleague Rosie McCorley added: “There has to be a conflict of interest if you are investigating something you had a role in.”

However, the DUP’s William Humphrey said Sinn Fein’s allegations were not founded on fact.

“This is a spurious flying of a kite,” he said.

NI21 leader Basil McCrea said he would be prepared to consider the issue but only if firm evidence was presented by Sinn Fein, backed by legal advice.

“You may have a point, it is something to be looked at, but we can’t just do it half way through a meeting,” he said.

Separate proposals for Mr McCausland to stand down as chairman of the inquiry, due of a conflict of interest, and for him to appear as a witness were defeated five votes to four.

After the votes, in which Mr McCausland abstained, the DUP North Belfast MLA urged members to look at the evidence.

“Assertion and repetition of that assertion are not evidence,” he said.

“I would encourage members to read carefully what Mr Jardine gave as evidence and also to read carefully the relevant papers in what have been provided to you and then some of the assertions might not be repeated in the way they have been.”